I return this week to the series I abruptly left unfinished about a year ago. According to 1 Corinthians 1-3, the means that God wants to use to save sinners is the gospel, the preaching of “Christ crucified.” The unsaved of this world do not accept this message because they lean on natural, human wisdom. I have argued that natural wisdom is the tendency of human beings to try to figure out their world by themselves, apart from the Spirit and God’s Word. Human beings have replaced God’s knowledge with their own knowledge, relying on their own wisdom rather than God’s wisdom. Because of this human wisdom, the world places inordinate value on earthly, temporal things. They do not value what God has revealed to them, and this is seen most clearly in the rejection of the “Word made Flesh,” Jesus Christ himself. For unbelievers, God’s message is utter foolishness.
First Corinthians 1-3 has also taught us that it is God’s will to use this plain proclamation of “Christ crucified” to bring sinners to himself. That is the revelation–the message–the wisdom–that saves. When we use the world’s system of values and priorities (and, by implication, the cultural artifacts that the expressions of that value system) to “dress up” or “prettify” the gospel message, we are actually undermining God’s revelation, for God’s revelation is opposed to the world’s system and wisdom. This is the message, we have been seeing, of the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians.
The passage I covered last was 1 Corinthians 2:6-12. Here Paul demonstrates that the message of the cross is reliable because it comes from the Spirit. Those who do not have the Spirit do not “get” this message. They have the “spirit of the world” (2:11). The Spirit, as the third person of the true and living Triune God, has access to the full depths of divine knowledge, and therefore the things revealed by Spirit are wholly trustworthy. Moreover, Christians have received that Spirit, so we understand the spiritual significance of the matters revealed to us by the Spirit.
In other words, people do not respond to the gospel because they do not have the Spirit. We must have the Spirit of God to accept and understand the things of the Spirit.
This takes us to 1 Cor 2:13:
And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (ESV)
So, Paul continues, he does not only get his teaching from the Spirit, but, when he teaches Christians, he uses spiritual means of communicating the ideas. This is important. It is not only that the Spirit reveals the content of Christian teaching, but Paul taught in a spiritual way.
I think we get an idea of what is not spiritual from earlier statements in these chapters. “For the Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,” Paul said in 1:22. He says in 2:1, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.” He continues, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4). These statements inform our interpretation of 2:13. Paul did not use fleshly gimmicks and tricks and reasoning. He did not want to implement worldly means. He relied on the Spirit of God.
How do you rely on the Spirit of God in the way that the message is given? By simply declaring the message of the cross and allowing the Spirit of God powerfully to use that Spirit-given message to bring about true spiritual fruit.
What the ESV translates “interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual,” could be rendered, “combining spiritual things with spiritual.” Paul’s point, I believe, is that he is combining Spirit-revealed content with a spiritual way of communicating those truths among spiritual people.
This verse teaches us that what makes spiritual things desirable or lovely or comely for people is the work of the Spirit. Spiritual things do not become attractive by making them attractive in a worldly way. We ought to be very guarded against trying to make the gospel attractive by inserting appeals to the various natural human appetites. Paul himself deliberately avoided this. He made it his “method” “to impart [the Spirit's message] in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.” Paul deliberately avoided ways of presenting the gospel that appeared to be relevant to the world.
The natural man and the Spirit are, as it were, worlds apart. Any true gospel successes that contemporary churches have in using worldly methods is God’s grace and power despite these methods, not because of them.
We too should approach gospel ministry the way Paul did. Instead of trying to find creative ways to be sensitive to the seeker, we ought to do for them what they most need: preach to them the good news of Jesus. Instead of borrowing the world’s system of values (often as expressed in culture) to make an otherworldly message appear desirable, we ought to preach Christ and him crucified. This message never appears attractive to unbelievers. This is why we need the Spirit of God.
Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too.